Knowing Who and Whose we are
The abduction of Elizabeth Smart is well-known, as are many of the details of her story. In mid-summer 2002, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom under cover of darkness by Brian David Mitchell, a deranged, messianic drifter. She was taken to his camp deep in the woods, where she was brutalized by Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. For nine months, Elizabeth endured her captivity, until in March of 2003 when she was recognized on a Salt Lake City street and freed. These broad strokes have been known publicly since the events occurred almost 18 years ago
But it was not widely known until later just how flagrantly Mitchell and Barzee paraded with Elizabeth through her own neighborhood. Scott Carrier, a neighbor and a parent of one of Elizabeth’s classmates, commented, “Through the summer Elizabeth’s photo hung in every window of every shop and on every lamp post. Her father and her family appeared regularly on local, national and international news programs, begging and weeping for her safe return. It seemed she was hidden somewhere far away, somewhere just beyond the broadcasting spectrum. Then, when she was found nine months later…we realized she’d actually been right here in front of us, walking around downtown, reading in the library, eating in fast-food restaurants…They began coming into the city by day, passing within a quarter-mile of Elizabeth’s home…And no one figured it out.”
Elizabeth subsequently attested that she would not, she could not, cry out and reveal her name, because she believed Brian Mitchell’s threat to kill her and her family. Of all those around her, only her captor, the near-demonic Mitchell, knew her name. But she never forgot who she was. She knew her identity, even when no one else recognized her.
Halfway through Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to identify him. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Very soon thereafter, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John, and God’s own voice from heaven confirms in their hearing the true identity of Jesus.
This is when Jesus’ identity is made known publicly and explicitly, when others begin to recognize accurately who Jesus is. But long before Peter’s proclamation is Jesus’ own recognition of his identity. Jesus, since his baptism in today’s Gospel has known who he is. We are told in the Gospel that –to Jesus alone, to only Jesus’ eyes and ears–the heaven of God opens and God’s own Spirit; God’s own voice names Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
For thirteen chapters, then, from now until Peter’s proclamation in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus must walk through the world–including during a trip home to Nazareth on the streets of his own neighborhood–knowing who he is but unable to cry out his identity, unable to share his true nature. Throughout all that time, he is a stranger to those who purport to know him and love him. In cruel irony for Jesus, only the demons he encounters recognize him for who he truly is.
It is a common literary motif: where a character knows his identity but cannot declare it. The character must walk through the world hidden in plain sight. Imagine for a minute, what it would be like to walk through the world in this way, hidden in plain sight, unrecognized even by those who love us?
Writers return again and again to this notion not because it is tantalizing fiction, but because it is agonizing truth. Truth be told, we, each of us, travel the streets of our hometowns, the hallways of our workplaces and schools, even the rooms of our very homes, with our true full identities unknown to any but ourselves. Think how often both the accolades and the criticisms you receive seem to you to be spoken about someone else, about some stranger who only vaguely reminds you of yourself. Remember those times when you believe if the world just knew the real you it would love you and rejoice in you, along with those times when you feel quite sure if the world knew the real you it would recoil in fear and disgust. We must admit the irony that the only ones who truly seem to know us–the real me–are the demons: self-doubts, anxieties, our weaknesses toward vice. The demons try to convince us of our identity.
Except that today, above all other days, we are reminded on this Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, to remember into whom we are baptized. We are called to remember who and whose we are! At his own baptism, God spoke to Jesus, and half a Gospel later God spoke to the disciples, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” That is his identity.
And in the Sacrament of Baptism, Jesus unites us to the Father, and Jesus’ identity becomes our own. We emerge from the water reborn into him. Lest we forget, baptism is not primarily about the opportunity to unpack the traditional christening gown (as beautiful as it may be) or take family photos or eat good cake. Baptism is the sacrament in which God declares—that we no longer need to mute our tongues from declaring who we are. We no longer need to duck into the shadows for fear of exposure to the world. Because who we are–who you and I only and truly are–are the sons and daughters of God. That identity is etched upon us more deeply than any mask. Its beauty smoothes all ugliness. Its truth silences the mocking laughter of the demons. It turns out that often even we did not truly know ourselves. What we secretly thought we were, in both our best and our worst moments, was wrong. We are neither the expert nor the fraud, the angel nor the monster, the beauty nor the beast. The truth of us is far simpler and far more glorious. We are the baptized, bearing the seal of the Holy Spirit on our brows just as the dove descended on Jesus. We can walk the streets of our neighborhoods, the hallways of our workplaces and schools, the rooms of our homes–indeed, we can look in the mirror–and say, “Look at me, the real me. I am a child of God. I am called beloved, by God.” And now that Same God nourishes us with the precious Body and Blood of his beloved Son. How blessed we are!!